Kevin O'Donnell '47 H'90
Learning to Stay Afloat
When Kevin O'Donnell '47, H'80, P'84 agreed to set up the Peace Corps program in South Korea in the mid-1960s, he never imagined that five years later he would be waging an all-out war for the agency's survival-as its director.
A wartime enrollee at Kenyon who never finished high school and spent just two semesters on campus, O'Donnell served in the U.S. Navy Supply Corps and earned an MBA at Harvard before going to work for SIFCO and Atlas Alloys, both Cleveland metal-working and steel concerns, separated by a stint with the consulting company Booz, Allen & Hamilton.
But he had also lost his first wife following the birth of their sixth child, battled alcoholism, and remarried the widow of a Navy buddy. When O'Donnell happened on a newspaper article about paid staff managers in the nascent Peace Corps, he jumped at the opportunity to do something different. "I was at a point in my life when I wished to be more mission- than profit-oriented," he recalls. In 1966, together with his second wife, Ellen, a merged family of eight children, and forty-eight pieces of luggage, O'Donnell set off for Seoul. It was his first trip overseas.
Today, he chuckles at his assumption that management success in the United States would easily translate in a foreign setting. "I thought, 'Well, it's another job.' I was pretty naïve."
Because each host nation has such different needs and wants, there was no single recipe for establishing a program. Unlike his U.S. embassy and military peers, O'Donnell had to rely on the local Korean economy for staff, housing, and office space. The language was difficult to master, the culture an enigma to most Americans.
"You went in and you sank or swam," says O'Donnell of his first months on the job. He quickly learned how to stay afloat.
His mandate was to establish educational programs in English, math, science, and physical education. Health care projects would come later. Working with several government ministries, a process that required considerable tact, he began to piece together a quiltwork of offerings that accommodated Korean needs while making the best use of the eventual 300-plus American volunteers in the operation.
Given the nature of the Corps' mission and the harsh conditions for volunteers, O'Donnell found himself rethinking the authoritarian management approach then in vogue in private industry. Managing volunteers, he discovered, was all about stimulation and very little about decree. "By and large, people who applied to the Peace Corps had energy and ability, and my biggest job was to point them in the right direction and then get the hell out of the way," O'Donnell says.
When his tour was over, O'Donnell didn't have definitive plans. The agency needed help back at headquarters in Washington, D.C., so he agreed to become director of administration and finance, acting deputy director, and finally, in 1971, director of the Peace Corps.
He ran right into a crisis, in the form of Representative Otto Passman of Monroe, Louisiana, who despised the Peace Corps and made it his mission, as chairman of an appropriations subcommittee, to bleed the agency's budget.
O'Donnell worked day and night to marshal forces against the cuts. Morale plummeted among his colleagues. All he could do was to "keep them aware of where we stood and that we were fighting like hell," he recalls. In the end, Congress did slash his budget, but President Nixon stepped in, transferring funds to fill the gap. O'Donnell did not have to bring home any volunteers on his watch.
Because he felt very strongly about the Peace Corps' non-careerist orientation-to maintain freshness, the agency allowed most staffers to stay just five years-O'Donnell, as a presidential appointee, agreed to a one-year extension but left in May of 1972, six years to the day after he signed up. But the O'Donnell legacy didn't end there.
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